I am very fascinated by and interested in Nephite history. Obviously I wish we had more information, What was on the large plates that Mormon abridged from? What information did he leave out? What was on the translated pages that Martin Harris lost? I expect it will take a while before I can get those answers (although Don Bradley provides some great insight in his book). So the only thing I can do except for learning directly from the Book of Mormon, is paying attention to details and reading between the lines. Doing so, I have been trying to better understand the Nephite government and the transition from kings to judges. Interestingly, this transition is a reversal of the Biblical transition from judges to kings.
The transition from kings to judges is also a monumental event in Nephite history. It is marked by a long speech by the king in the last chapter of Mosiah and the transition from the Book of Mosiah to the Book of Alma. It is also an event that happens in the middle of Nephite history. King Mosiah died and Alma became the first chief judge 509 years after Lehi left Jerusalem, according to Mosiah 29:46. Fast forward another 509 years and we are in 419 AD when Moroni was wandering around alone with the plates about to bury them in the ground.
This milestone of changing the governmental form was so monumental that they changed the time reckoning for the first time since Lehi left Jerusalem. The laws that king Mosiah established that the people were to be governed by under the rule of the judges, are referred to several times later in the Book of Mormon.
Reading between the lines, the transition may not have been without complications. A king is usually considered the highest authority in all affairs of the kingdom. He has his royal court so that he gets advise and help with all the affairs but he always has the final word. Nephite kings had at least the following responsibilities:
- Secular affairs (law enforcement etc.)
- Ecclesiastical affairs
- Record keeping
Secular affairs (government)
They observed to the law of Moses and the day holy unto the Lord. And they not; neither did they . And the of the land were exceedingly strict. (Jarom 1:5)
But they weren't referred to often. These rare occasion mentions it in conjunction with the law of Moses. I get a sense that the laws they lived by pretty much were based on the Torah ("law" or "instruction" in Hebrew) on the brass plates. In Israel, any righteous king at least would let the Torah comprise the governing principles of the land. I expect the Nephites to have followed that tradition. Practical matters that were not covered by the Torah may have simply been up to the king to decide. It makes sense that a change from king to judge would necessitate a more detailed law.
And it came to pass also that the armies of the Lamanites came down out of the , to battle against his people. But behold, king Benjamin gathered together his armies, and he did stand against them; and he did fight with the strength of his own arm, with the of Laban. (Words of Mormon 1:13)
He who had the sword of Laban was the leader of the army, no doubt. This is also made clear by "gathered together his armies". The question is who becomes the leader of the army when there are no more kings. Reading between the lines, I think this was not really thought through. It is obvious that the king should be leading the army but perhaps not so obvious that the chief judge should have that role. This happened nonetheless but it didn't last for very long. In Alma 2, he had only been chief judge for a little more than four years
Now Alma, being the and the of the people of Nephi, therefore he went up with his people, yea, with his captains, and chief captains, yea, at the head of his armies, against the Amlicites to battle.
He is the chief captain of the army at this point. Only six years later
Therefore, he that had been appointed chief captain over the armies of the Nephites, (and his name was Zoram, and he had two sons, Lehi and Aha)—now Zoram and his two sons, knowing that Alma was high priest over the church, and having heard that he had the spirit of prophecy, therefore they went unto him and desired of him to know whither the Lord would that they should go into the wilderness in search of their brethren, who had been taken captive by the Lamanites. (Alma 16:5)
In the meantime, Alma has also given up the judgment seat and is focusing on his role as high priest. He is also not the chief captain of the army and more. Is that because he gave up the judgment seat? No. Because if the role as chief captain followed the role as chief judge, Nephihah, the chief judge should also have been captain of the army. Instead it is a man named Zoram. In this case he approaches the high priest and former chief captain, Alma, to see if he can inquire of the Lord.
I can easily imagine some events here that have not been carried over into Mormon's abridgment. Alma is chief captain of the army just because the kings used to be and he is the closest equivalent of former kings in the new system. But after a while he (or others) ask. "Who said the chief judge should lead the army anyway? We haven't really thought this through, have we?" Or the question comes up when Alma leaves the judgment seat to Nephihah. "OK, I'll be the chief judge but I'm not going to lead the army. I'm not a warrior, I'm terrible with the sword". From this time on, the chief captain (of which captain Moroni is the most famous) is never the same person as the chief judge.